Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Guest post: Beyond The Silver Lake: Pioneer Girl Reveals Truth about Mary’s Blindness by Lisa Wilson

There is a line that epitomizes the moment that Mary Ingalls lost her sight in 1879, at the age of 14. It comes from the novel ‘By the Shores ofSilver Lake’. Laura writes:

Mary and Carrie and baby Grace and Ma all had scarlet fever. Far worst of all, the fever had settled in Mary’s eyes and Mary was blind.

Scarlet fever was a serious disease back in the 1800s and as many as 30 percent of children suffering from it died. It was used as a literary device in many novels of the era, with readers able to relate to the fever and how fatal it could be. In Little Women, Beth succumbs to scarlet fever and dies tragically, and the child in the Velveteen Rabbit also contracts it. Mary Ingalls' blindness being caused by the fever seems highly plausible.

Recently, however, newevidence has come to light that scarlet fever may not have been the cause of Mary’s blindness at all. In all likelihood it was viral meningoencephalitis, or ‘brain disease’ as it was known then.

Laura’s Memoir helped Researchers

The popularity of the Little House books remains strong today, with 3 being cited in the School Library Journal’s 2012 list of favorite children’s books, and this is the reason so much interest has been sparked about the revelation behind Mary’s illness.

Scarlet fever, even today, is received with dread, as parents overreact to news that their child has the infection, reports NBCNews. Many parents connect scarlet fever to literary classics such as Little Women or Little House on the Prairie, when in fact today it is likened to strep throat with a rash. In the 1800s, however it was a different matter. Scarlet fever ravaged towns, preying on young children' with a particularly bad epidemic hitting Fredericksburg in 1861, claiming at least a hundred lives, according to a resident. The disease hit a poignant chord with the nation and this is why it has been used as a popular literary device ever since.

Dr Tarini, writing in the journal Pediatrics, has been studying newspapers of the era as well as epidemiological data about blindness to come to her findings with her co-authors. They also found Laura Ingalls’ memoir Pioneer Girl to be incredibly useful when collating their research. Laura wrote a letter to her daughter in 1937 about Mary’s illness, and how a doctor had called it ‘spinal meningitis (sic) some sort of spinal sickness’. In all likelihood, Tarini reflects, the disease was changed before the novel went to print to make it easier for children to understand, as scarlet fever was already known to so many. Tarini believes that the meningoencephalitis affected the optic nerves in Mary’s eyes, causing her vision loss.

The Reality of Pioneer Life

The Little House books have a wholesome appeal for so many and are a beloved part of our culture and history, but pioneer life was far from easy, and this is reflected in Laura Ingalls’ memoir. Themes of alcoholism and violence pervade the Little House books, bringing a real sense of dark reality to the stories.

Alison Gazarek writes about Laura in Bloom magazine. As a young adult, Laura carried a revolver around with her when she spent time in Florida because of the tension there, and she worked in a hotel in Iowa where she witnessed alcoholism and occasional violence. These events had an impact on her writing. Along with scenes of Indians visiting Walnut Grove, crop failures and plagues of grasshoppers, there are tensions between characters, with occasional alcohol abuse being prevalent in certain chapters that is also portrayed in the television series.

Chronic consumption of alcohol was common in the 1800s, with many believing that it was good for the health. Americans would consume alcohol at different points of the day (called ‘eleveners’) instead of coffee or tea, and laborers would stop in the fields for a jug. Whiskey was considered ‘absolutely indispensable to man and boy’ in the 1800s and was seen as being as important as bread. In the 21st Century, addiction is seen as a very serious and destructive illness and sufferers receive the best help available, from withdrawal centers such as those in Idaho, with full support from their families. This is a far cry from the pioneer attitudes of the 1800s, when whiskey was truly believed to be vital to a man’s constitution.

Laura Ingalls’ account of pioneer life is a fascinating reminder of the past, and we can see how the serious themes of a harsh frontier experience seeped into the memorable Little House books.

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